Our next contributor for the Place as Person series is Alan Baxter. I eye people like Alan from afar, with something akin to awe: where does he get the energy to do it all? Writing, blogging, Kung Fu, reams of good advice… Check out his thoughts on writing the fight right.
When Mary asked me to write a piece for this series of guest posts, I jumped at the chance. For me, the location in a story is just as much a character as any people (or other entities) might be. I’ve always enjoyed most those stories in which the place is real in my mind. It doesn’t take paragraph after paragraph of descriptive prose – in fact, that’s the worst way to approach writing about anything. It takes prime elements, dropped here and there throughout the story, which key us in to where we are, where the characters are, and lets us exist in that place with them. Little hints of little details, sweeping mentions of big details – smells, sensations, skylines, weather, the crunch of broken glass underfoot in a dripping alley. These are the things which make a place into a person.
As a teenager reading the stories of masters like Robert E Howard and Michael Moorcock, I came to realise what could be achieved with a well-written place, tales which paid attention to the world in which they were set. China Mieville in Perdido Street Station, for example, creates a city so vibrant, so real, so inhabited, that we know what it’s like to live there.
I’ve been asked many times where the opening of my first book, RealmShift, is set, because it’s never named. I always answer, “The City.” For me, the city is the greatest place-as-person there is, but then I’m primarily a dark urban fantasy writer. I deliberately set the start of RealmShift in an unnamed city – it could as easily be New York, London, Sydney or Gotham. I wanted readers to overlay their own character of city on it – our readers have powerful imaginations and I like to let them exercise that gift while they read – but the city in question was very real in my mind, and I was careful to make it as authentic and well-realised as any of the people (or gods, demons and other monsters) in the book.
My third novel, which is out seeking a publisher now, is set all over the world. It starts in Sydney, but travels to Canada, Britain and elsewhere. While I was writing it I went on holiday with my wife and we toured around Scotland and then stopped in Rome for a week on the way home. I had to then change aspects of the book and set large, key scenes in Scotland and Rome. Those places were fresh in my mind – I’d seen, smelled, felt their personalities – and I had to write about them.
In a story, where something happens is just as important as why it happens and how it happens, and for that to work, the place has to be as much a character as the players. Everyone should travel, to experience the massive differences and surprising similarities between London and Hong Kong, or between Sydney and Barcelona, and so on. It’s a luxury, and one we have to work hard to afford, but it’s so rewarding on a personal level and fantastic grist for the writing mill, whether you set stories in those places, or use those experiences to create utterly believable worlds of your own.
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author living on the south coast of NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. His contemporary dark fantasy novels, RealmShift and MageSign, are out through Gryphonwood Press, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US and the UK, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror. Alan is also a freelance writer, penning reviews, feature articles and opinion. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.alanbaxteronline.com – and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.